Notes: Phelps the odd man out
Tracy trying to figure out how to get slugger more at-bats
HOUSTON -- Pirates manager Jim Tracy would need more than 10 fingers to count the number of times this season he has been looking for an offensive catalyst.
Now he has him. And now there's a new problem: finding a place in the lineup to put Josh Phelps.
Phelps is as locked in at the plate as a hitter can be, having knocked nine base hits in his last 10 at-bats. Then there's also the .609 batting average he has this month, and the .484 overall mark in his eight starts with Pittsburgh since joining the club in June.
Those numbers have to warrant regular playing time, right? Well, there's one presence standing in Phelps' way -- No. 25, Adam LaRoche. With LaRoche solidified as the club's everyday first baseman, and rightfully so with the offensive contributions he has been making over the last few months, Phelps remains the odd man out.
Yes, he has versatility, but it's still limited. A very capable third-string catcher, Phelps' long arm motion is a crux for trying to throw runners out. He did make his second start of the season behind the plate on Sunday, though Tracy has said that it's not a place where Phelps will start often.
So if first base is occupied, and his abilities as a catcher are still a work in progress, is there another option?
"Well, I remember playing the outfield one time 11 years ago in Billings, Montana, in rookie ball," Phelps recollected. "That's about the extent of my outfield experience."
Phelps has been taking some outfield work lately and will continue to do so with the goal of eventually improving his versatility and giving the Pirates another option on where he can be used. But he's determined to put in the work before considering the outfield as an option, refusing to compromise the good of his team for some extra playing time.
When Tracy asked him about his outfield experience, Phelps didn't try to sugarcoat it, even though he knew that convincing Tracy that he felt comfortable out there would likely garner him a few extra starts. Instead, Phelps remains grounded in his role, which remains primarily as a threat off the bench.
"I'm exceeding my role right now, and it feels good that they want to try and get me some at-bats," said Phelps, who has two pinch-hit homers in his last four games. "But I have to be reserved in the fact that, if everyone takes their job as seriously as I do, and I'm sure they do, it's important for those guys who are pitching not to have a guy out there learning it. I want to be prepared to be out there."
Tracy echoed the same thoughts.
"You're not going to compromise your players," Tracy said. "You're not going to put them in an unfavorable position where they haven't had enough work."
Morris still learning: It's no secret that the team has learned from Matt Morris' work ethic since he arrived in Pittsburgh nearly a month ago. But don't be fooled, the relationship is actually very symbiotic. Despite already having 10 years of experience, Morris claims that he has learned just as much as he has offered.
A start with a fresh pitching coach has brought Morris a new perspective on his mechanics, which has led to Morris relying less on his breaking ball by mixing in a slider more often. After watching film of Morris, pitching coach Jim Colborn advised him to stand taller on the mound and use the leverage that height affords him to his advantage.
It was an adjustment Morris didn't realize he needed to make, but one that has reaped immediate dividends.
"After years of pitching, you think you're pitching like you were when you are 19 or 20 [years old], but you can never see yourself, you don't feel it until someone tells you what you look like," Morris said. "I just made some adjustments to try to stay taller and get the ball lower in the zone."
Following his win on Friday, Morris also credited catcher Ronny Paulino with challenging him from falling into too comfortable a routine with his pitch selection.
"We hooked up," said Morris, who pitched six innings and allowed one run in earning the victory. "There were some pitches that he called that I was unsure about, but they were successful. That's what it's all about when you can feed off your catcher."
Let's be Frank: When Franquelis Osoria joined the Pirates in early August, it's safe to say the expectations weren't running rampant. He was known for a solid sinker, but beyond that, the Pirates were just hopeful that he'd provide a stable link in the bullpen.
Osoria has seized the opportunity and has exceeded whatever expectations were set for him. In 11 innings out of the bullpen so far, Osoria has limited the damage to three runs. And his 1 1/3 scoreless innings late in a tight game on Saturday had his manager lauding his performance afterward.
"When he's down in the strike zone, he has a devastating sinker," Tracy said of Osoria. "If he gets the ball down in the zone, it's live, it's deep and it's heavy. He must be conscious of the fact that when he's using his secondary pitches that he doesn't get hurt."
Moskos report: To clarify a recent report that Pirates first-round pick Daniel Moskos was taken out of a State College game because of mechanical issues, Brian Graham, the Pirates' senior director of player development, said that Moskos was removed because of a rain delay during the inning and simply didn't come back once the delay was over.
Though mechanical issues weren't reason to take him out of a game, Graham did say that State College pitching coach Wilson Alvarez has noticed Moskos rushing some of his mechanics and will be taking some time to remedy that problem.
Graham emphasized that there is nothing physically wrong with Moskos, evident by the fact that his velocity has not wavered.
Other news from the Minors: Duke Welker, the Pirates' second-round pick in June's First-Year Player Draft, has stopped pitching for the Class A State College Spikes because of right elbow pain. Welker will have a throwing session on Monday, which is expected to lead to a side session later in the week. ... Shelby Ford, the Pirates' third-round selection in 2006, has missed the last 27 games in Lynchburg due to a lower back strain. According to Graham, Shelby is expected to see a back specialist soon. ... The Pirates' 2007 fifth-round pick, Andrew Walker, has missed three games with a mildly sprained wrist from a recent collision at homeplate. Walker is listed as day-to-day.
On deck: The Pirates will use an off-day on Monday to catch their breath before opening a brief three-day homestand with a doubleheader against the Reds. The first game, a makeup from Aug. 6, will begin at 5:05 p.m. ET at PNC Park and will pit left-hander Tom Gorzelanny (12-7, 3.40 ERA) against Cincinnati right-hander Elizardo Ramirez (0-1, 6.35). Lefty Paul Maholm (10-14, 4.39) will face right-hander Bronson Arroyo (7-13, 4.55) in the second game.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.